Julian May on writing the Saga of the Exiles series
Award-winning science fiction author Julian May on her career and how giving her creativity free rein led to the hugely popular Saga of the Exiles series.
Julian May was the author behind the phenomenally successful Saga of the Exiles series, which follows a group of humans from the 22nd century as they travel back in time six million years in hope of founding a new utopia. Alas, they didn’t reckon on their new homeland being the battleground for two warring alien races . . . In this interview from 1982, Julian May discusses how her career developed from writing her first novella to being the author of a bestselling series and her love of science fiction. Explore the Saga of the Exiles series here.
I’m fifty-one years old, a professional writer for my entire adult life. Married to the same man for thirty years. Mother of three grownup children. I have three cats that keep the house messed up and a big Japanese Akita guard dog that goes backpacking with me. I grow cute little miniature roses. I play pop songs on a mighty theatre organ and love to go to the opera. I drive a bronco four-wheeler. I sew on a 1928-vintage electric sewing machine. I’m a practical, hard-headed pro. I write for money and make no bones about it. Starving for the sake of art has never appealed to me. I like to write and I’m good at it – but it’s my profession, not my pastime. Not very fantastic, eh? Wait!
I was the kid who devoured the Lang fairytale books at the Elmwood Park Public Library back in Illinois. I also cut out and saved the Buck Rogers comic strips and had a stack of Wonder Woman comic books a foot high. In 1947, when I was sixteen, I devoured pulp SF magazines and became hooked.
I sold my first piece of writing while I was at college. It was an article on Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo. My second sale was a piece of genuine science fiction – a fourteen-thousand-word novelette called Dune Roller. It attracted a lot of attention. It featured a science nobody had ever heard of: ecology. It had a rousing monster hunt and a discreet love interest and a good deal of colourful background material about the Michigan sand dune country. The story was an instant entrée into the tight little world of SF fandom. I met my future husband at an SF convention. We had a lot of fun and went to a lot of other conventions. I wrote one other science fiction story and sold it . . . and then quit the field for twenty-six years.
Why? It was 1953. The fantasy-book market was in its infancy and the genre was still not respectable. If you wanted to earn a living writing SF, you had to be willing to grind out endless stories for the pulp magazines. Only two of them paid as much as three cents a word. The rest ranged down to one-quarter of a cent on publication – if the magazine hadn’t gone broke by then. Hardcover and paperback sales were almost nonexistent. Of course I quit! I am of Polish descent – and we Polacks are survivors.
I wrote science fiction materials and nonfiction science books for children. Between 1953 and 1957 I churned out some seven thousand encyclopedia articles on science, technology, and natural history. Between 1957 and 1978 I wrote more than two hundred and forty-five nonfiction juvenile books.
Time marched on . . . Around 1976 my husband and I went to our first SF convention in twenty years. SF conventions in America have elaborate masquerades where the attendees vie to outdo one another in creating fantastic and beautiful costumes. Well, I made a costume, too, on my antique sewing machine: a diamond-studded silver space suit. It was a stunner. I had let my reined-in creativity go wild! Deep inside my giant brain, the fantastic streak that had lain doggo for all those years erupted. Sane, sensible me was coming down with a full-scale attack of the middle age crazies. A story to go with the diamond-studded suit began to sprout in my mind. I would be sitting there at the electric typewriter, writing something sensible like Cotton-tail Rabbit or Billie Jean King, Tennis Champion – and the story would come creeping . . .
The story grew. It ramified and grew subplots! After a while I made a folder and sheepishly labelled it 'The Novel' and stuck it into the bottom drawer of my desk. Over the next two years I put little slips of paper with ideas into it. The folder grew to be four inches thick. All those wild, wild ideas – where did they come from? . . . I once estimated that I had read or skimmed nearly fifty thousand volumes in the course of researching my nonfiction juvenile books and writing the seven thousand encyclopedia articles. I read very fast and retain quite a lot of the data. And besides the research I had to do, there were certain other topics I delved into for the sheer hell of it: mythology and folklore; psychology – especially Carl Jung; geology and paleontology, which I’ve always adored; sociology and political studies; history – especially English history, since I’m a keen Anglophile. All this material – plus the English thrillers and mysteries that were my favorite light reading – was grist for my 'word processor'. I have a very good one – compact, low-maintenance, dependable. I wear it between my ears.
I kept filling the folder. I was bored with the SF of the late 1970s: one gloom-and-doom vision after another. Who needed it, with the real world in the state it was in? Readers, I felt, were ready for something completely different. I brooded over folkloric themes, the Norse sagas, the Arthurian legend, the Irish and Germanic faerie kingdoms, Tolkien and his modern fantasy treatment of classic mythopoeic themes. And the old-fashioned word processor said: time-travel. I took sophisticated humans from a Galactic Milieu through a time-gate and dropped them in the midst of barbarian mind-wars. And it worked. I constructed a multilayered, massive novel with four parts. On the surface it was a rousing adventure in the colourful Pliocene of western Europe, six million years ago. Below that I could indulge in character creation to my heart’s content, archetypal characters full of courage and humour and earthy sex and archaic violence. The result was the Saga of Pliocene Exile [US series title].
I no longer write juveniles. They were not what I really loved to do. Fantasy was my first love, and it probably will be my last. But I’ll have to get a new costume closet. The one I have now is full.